South West Scotland with alt-J

“I get the feeling this area is often passed by as people head up to the highlands, giving the whole place a placid, carefree atmosphere.”

For a significant family birthday, we chose to escape the humdrumness of home this year and hire a cabin in a remote part of lovely Dumfriesshire called Sandyhills. It was less than an hour over the border but already the scenery felt wild and exciting compared to bumbling old England. Where we stayed was 10 minutes’ walk from the sea and looked out over a small loch, meaning we were the first port of call for every Atlantic storm and every bright burst of Scottish sunlight. Even though it received more than its fair share of rain, the place was glorious. I would sit with a coffee every morning feeling incredibly cosy staring out at persistent showers on the loch. In a perfect coincidence, folky indie rock band alt-J happened to release their third album, RELAXER that week. It was just the sort of chilled and understated accompaniment I needed to enjoy my already quite pretentious hipster-y situation. I developed a routine of putting on Adeline and mulling things over in my head, trying not to think about the ridiculous snap election which was coming up that Thursday.

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The cabin.

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Exploring the cove – 100% candid shot.

Days that week were spent exploring the area and watching films in the cabin, as well as visiting the usually deserted indoor pool and sauna. I would go to the pool with my speakers and blast out I’m The One by DJ Khaled whilst doing a few lengths, then swelter myself to breaking point in the sauna. The beach at Sandyhills was one of those that stretches out for miles so you barely see the sea but can explore all the way along the cove without worrying about the tide. We were able to walk to Port o’Warren discovering hidden caves and rock formations as the sun beat down and we were battered by the strong gusts. I get the feeling this area is often passed by as people head up to the highlands, giving the whole place a placid, carefree atmosphere which seemed to be reflected in the local accent. There was no harsh Glaswegian inflection here; at the beach café we were offered “hwhite or black coffee” in a gentle tone that I hadn’t really come across on TV before. If you need to escape to somewhere close by that is quiet and unobtrusive, this is the place to go. We visited several towns and villages in the area including:

Kirkcudbright. Pretty harbour town with a castle and lots of independent art galleries to explore. Ate at The Belfry Café – a bustling and seemingly legendary establishment in which I ordered their exclusive “Scottie Dog” because it has its own logo. It contained haggis so I felt satisfied I had had a truly authentic Scottish experience.

Galloway Activity Centre. Canoe and kayak hire available to explore beautiful Loch Ken – highly recommended.

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Loch Ken.

Threave Garden & Estate. Perfect location for a country walk through woodland and along a disused railway with views across the valley. Helpful staff and a gift shop selling Traditional Scottish Things which I obviously lapped up.

Kippford. Near the mouth of the Urr River – sleepy and pleasant. Had a special “moment” seeing a young deer running around by the water which I ruined for myself by getting frustrated with the iPhone’s pathetic zoom function.

Dalbeattie. Not that nice. Every single building is grey. Pretty dull with not much to do.

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Dalbeattie.

I was doing the dishes listening to Radio 1’s “Power Down Playlist” the first time I heard 3WW, the lead single from RELAXER. It’s the sort of song that can make you feel high without the need to indulge in narcotics – a handy timesaver! It drifts along with guitar and piano held together by some form of percussion (possibly one of those eggs from Music in school?) with guest vocalist Ellie Rowsell from Wolf Alice chiming in towards the end. Another favourite of mine is Last Year in which the lead vocalist Joe Newman mournfully lists everything he did last year month by month, until it reaches his “funeral” in December. At that point the song takes a new turn as a female vocalist joins in and is followed by a gentle woodwind solo. It is funereal and clearly about depression, but the instrumental at the end has a faintly celebratory quality, much like the celebration of a life that a funeral becomes. The final song, Pleader, is a choral delight and resembling a hymn, it doesn’t fail to make hairs stand on end. If you’re ever in front of a sunset or something this needs to be blasted out. Adeline, for me, is the album’s highlight – a canon that weaves together the story of a Tasmanian devil who falls in love with a woman. RELAXER is only short but it triumphantly blends folk genres from several continents and a wide range of instruments, creating its own unique ambience. Yes, it can be bleak, but from this bleakness rises eight stunning orchestral pieces that really did resonate with the Scottish backdrop. I don’t think I could have chosen better.

Listen to RELAXER here.

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